A horse is a horse of course of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course. Or can they?
It's not quite the equivalent of Mister Ed, but it's the next best thing. Researchers have taught a group of Norwegian horses to use a series of symbols to talk to their human caretakers, and the equines used their newfound verbosity to communicate their blanket preferences.
Horses were trained to use their noses to select one of three boards with different symbols on them. The board with a horizontal line means "put my blanket on," while the board with a vertical line means "take it off." A third blank board allows the horses to indicate that they are perfectly happy as is. It took less than two weeks to train all 23 horses in the study to properly use the symbols. The research was detailed in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
The training process involved placing the horses in either a very warm environment with a blanket on or a very cold environment without a blanket. The animals were cued about the meaning of the symbols by being fed carrots whenever they made the appropriate choice. When wrong choices were made, the horses were given nothing. It took just 10-15 minutes of training a day for the horses to figure out the symbol system.
Once everything clicked for the horses, they became increasingly eager to communicate with humans, even going out of their way to get the attention of their caretakers so that they could discuss their preferences. They seemed enthusiastic at the opportunity to take more control over their own temperature regulation, to convey whether they were hot or cold. In fact, once the horses grasped the symbol system they no longer required carrots as reward, which indicated to researchers that they truly understood what the boards meant.
Researchers also confirmed that the animals were either sweating or shivering when they would indicate their blanket preferences. By the end of the study, the horses were using the symbols with 100 percent accuracy. Over the following months, they would continue to use the communication system to indicate their changing preferences as weather conditions changed.
It's a remarkable result, one which could revolutionize how horses are kept and cared for. The next step will be to see what other concepts the horses might be able to communicate, and to test just how big their vocabulary can become.